Hospitalists Play Key Role in Advance Care Planning

Heidi Splete

May 27, 2021

Advance care planning (ACP) is a process that supports adults at any age or stage of health in understanding and sharing their personal values, life goals, and preferences for future medical care, according to Meredith A. MacMartin, MD, director of inpatient palliative care at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, in Lebanon, New Hampshire.

Dr Meredith MacMartin

ACP "is really about planning for care in advance," and in many ways, the in-patient setting is uniquely suited to this process, MacMartin said in a presentation at the virtual Society of Hospital Medicine (SHM) 'Converge' 2021 Annual Meeting. "The key part is the advance part. You want conversations to happen before the care is actually needed," she said.

MacMartin emphasized the importance of distinguishing between ACP and advance directives (ADs). ACP is a process, whereas ADs are documentation, "ideally of the content of advance care planning discussions," she explained. ACP involves discussion about what is important to the patient, their goals, what information is helpful for them, and whether their current care is aligned with their goals, MacMartin said. ADs might involve a designated power of attorney for healthcare, a living will, and, in some states, specific clinician-signed orders regarding resuscitation or transport to hospital.

ACP is "more than whether a patient wants CPR [cardiopulmonary resuscitation] or not," said MacMartin. ACP matters because it helps ensure that the care a patient receives aligns with the patient's wishes and values, she said. ACP increases the likelihood of a patient dying in their preferred location, it allows them to discuss their wishes and prepare for decline, and it relieves family members of the burden of decision making, she said. From a hospital perspective, data show that use of an ACP can decrease intensive care unit (ICU) utilization and overall healthcare costs. "Often, when people are given the opportunity to express their wishes, they get less unnecessary care," MacMartin noted.

Although ACP often takes place in an outpatient setting, hospitalists are in a unique position to conduct some ACP conversations with their patients, MacMartin said. "Hospitalists are available" and are physically present at least once a day, so there is a pragmatic advantage. Also, some data suggest that patients may feel more comfortable having ACP conversations with a hospitalist than with a primary care provider with whom they have a long-standing relationship, Martin added.

Another important advantage of ACP in the hospital setting is that, "as hospitalists, you are the expert on inpatient illness; you know what sick looks like, and you have a unique perspective on prognostication that may be harder to recreate in the outpatient setting," Martin said.

Barriers to ACP Include Patient Identification, Logistics, Attitudes

Settings in which ACP is appropriate include those in which a patient is undergoing "sentinel hospitalization," meaning that the patient is at a transition point in the disease course. Examples are a patient newly diagnosed with metastatic solid cancer, a patient with progressive chronic kidney disease who is considering hemodialysis, or a patient who receives treatment in the ICU for longer than 7 days, MacMartin said.

Guidelines for identifying patients who might benefit from ACP include the use of the "surprise question" ("would you be surprised if this patient dies in the next year?") as well as functional status assessments using tools such as the Australia-modified Karnofsky Performance Status or the Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group score, said MacMartin. Some studies suggest that any hospitalized patient older than 65 years should have an ACP discussion, she added.

Time pressure remains a significant barrier to ACP conversations. Some strategies to overcome this problem include enlisting help from other specialists, particularly social workers, MacMartin said. Social workers report a higher comfort level for talking to patients about death than any other medical specialty; "this is something they want to be doing," she said. Also, the possibility of reimbursement may act as a buffer to create more time to have ACP conversations with patients, she noted.

Addressing clinicians' discomfort with ACP conversations can be "a tougher nut to crack," MacMartin acknowledged. Clinicians report that they don't want to cause their patients distress, and some report that having conversations about end-of-life care is distressing for them as well. Some of these barriers can be overcome with skills training, including using a prepared guideline or framework to help increase the comfort level for both clinicians and patients, said MacMartin.

A Look Ahead: Training Strategies and COVID-19 Impact

"For hospitalists interested in developing their ACP skills, I highly recommend two resources," MacMartin said in an interview. "The Serious Illness Conversation Guide, from Ariadne Labs, is an excellent tool for any clinician to guide discussion about a patient’s goals and values," she said.

"For clinicians wanting to build or improve their communication, including advance care planning discussions but also topics like responding to patient's emotions, VitalTalk training offers a deeper dive into core communications skills," she added.

"If your hospital has a palliative care team, they may also have more local resources available to you. To learn more about billing for ACP discussions, I recommend starting with your institutional billing and coding group, as these practices vary some between practices, and they will be able to provide the best guidance for clinicians. These are new codes that aren’t yet being very widely used so it’s a chance to innovate," MacMartin noted.

“The hospital setting is an opportunity for patients to reflect on their health, both present and in the future, with a physician who has expertise in acute illness and prognostication and who is available for discussion on a daily basis during the hospitalization," Martin emphasized.

As for whether the COVID-19 pandemic has affected ACP in the inpatient setting, the data are limited, but more information is forthcoming, MacMartin said. "In my personal experience and in talking to colleagues elsewhere, the pandemic has highlighted the need for ACP in some ways, as we have tried to ensure that people who wouldn't want things like intensive care are identified early," she said. "I hope that some of the workflows developed to identify patients who should get ACP in the hospital stay in practice and are strengthened over time," she added.

MacMartin has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Heidi Splete is a freelance medical journalist with 20 years of experience.

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